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The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit

Genizah Fragments

The Newsletter of Cambridge University's
Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit
at Cambridge University Library

No. 38 October 1999

On other pages


Friedberg Project launched

[The Friedberg project advisory board]
Members of the advisory board of the Friedberg Genizah Project at their founding meeting

A patron of Jewish scholarship in North America, three New York professors of Jewish studies, and an international group of Genizah specialists have been responsible for an exciting new research initiative.

Mr Albert D. Friedberg, of Toronto, and the Buckingham Foundation have set up the Friedberg Genizah Project, in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, and are planning to fund numerous Genizah projects around the world.

The intention is to encourage the completion of existing programmes of research and to make the results available on computer for experts and non-specialists alike.

Texts, descriptions, translations and digitized images of Genizah fragments are among the items that are planned to make their appearance, in both databases and printed format.

Grants will be made for Genizah projects at academic institutions, and among the areas to be covered are biblical and rabbinic literature, Jewish prayer and philosophy, and legal documents.

The Friedberg Project is being managed at New York University by Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman, of NYU; Professor Neil Danzig, of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America; and Professor Yaakov Elman, of Yeshiva University.

Sitting on the academic advisory board are Professors Menahem Ben-Sasson, Haggai Ben-Shammai and Menahem Kahana, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Professor Mordechai A. Friedman, of Tel Aviv University; and myself.

Agreements to fund and further specific projects have already been made with the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem; the Talmud Department at the Hebrew University; the Jewish Theological Seminary of America; the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University; and our own Genizah Research Unit in Cambridge.

At the Unit, assistance from the Friedberg Project will enable us to engage Mr Ben Outhwaite, shortly to complete his doctoral dissertation, on the final preparation and publication of the biblical fragments in our Genizah Collections.

At the same time, Dr Avihai Shivtiel and Dr Friedrich Niessen will continue their work on the Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic items, and Dr Erica Hunter and Mrs Rebecca Jefferson will be occupied with the research necessary for the second volume of Published Material from the Cambridge Genizah Collections.

We also have co-operative projects with Professor Mark Cohen, in Princeton, on the documentary fragments, and Dr Uri Ehrlich, at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, on the liturgical items.

Altogether, Genizah research seems to be fast acquiring a welcome and promising international flavour.

Director, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit

Close members of the family of the late David Lauffer have kindly helped to meet the cost of producing this issue of Genizah Fragments. Their generous act is a worthy tribute to David, who supported the Unit for a number of years and was particularly interested in Jewish historical research.

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Childhood dream realized

Mrs Agnes Lewis and her twin sister, Mrs Margaret Gibson, were quintessential Victorian characters whose childhood dream was to follow in the footsteps of Moses and the Israelites.

Taught the rudiments of photography, and having studied various languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic, they undertook a number of exciting journeys to the Near East and carved out for themselves a reputation for religious scholarship and intrepid adventure.

During one such expedition, they organized a caravan from Cairo to St Catherine's monastery, at the foot of Mount Sinai. In the library there, they discovered and photographed a hitherto unknown Syriac version of the Four Gospels in a fourth-century manuscript.

They also played a major role in Genizah history, having brought some fragments to Solomon Schechter in May, 1896, and inspired his trip to Cairo the following winter. Their work was widely acknowledged, and they were popular members of the Cambridge set of the period.

Their remarkable volumes - How the Codex was Found, by Gibson (1893) and In the Shadow of Sinai, by Lewis (1898) - have now been republished by The Alpha Press in one volume entitled The Shadow of Sinai (ISBN 1 898595 23 2; £14.95 paperback).

Readers of Genizah Fragments are being offered this volume at the reduced price of £12.50 (UK)/ £13.50 (overseas), including postage and packing.

If you would like a copy, please place your order with The Alpha Press, Box 2950, Brighton BN2 5SP.

Visa and Mastercard (but not Switch) may be used, or a cheque may be sent, payable to The Alpha Press.

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Israelis visit Unit

Among the most distinguished guests welcomed by Unit staff in recent months were the Ambassador of Israel, Mr Dror Zeigerman, and Mrs Asi Zeigerman; from the Israeli Defence Forces, Major-General Amos Malka, Director of Military Intelligence, and Brigadier-General Yitzhaqi Chen, Military Attaché at the Embassy of Israel in London; Mr Avigdor Kahalani, former Israeli Minister for Internal Security, and Mrs Kahalani; Mrs Linda Noe Laine, of Louisiana; and Rabbi Dr Aaron Lichtenstein, Director of the Rabbinical Academy at Har Etzion, Israel.

There were also groups from the Council of Christians and Jews; the Friends of the Wellcome Institute; Lauderdale Road Synagogue; St John's College; Willesden Discussion Group; and the WIZO and Yakar Cultural Groups.

In his letter of thanks to the Unit's Director, Professor Stefan Reif, Mr Kahalani wrote: "You took us right back to the medieval roots of the Jewish people, and introduced us at close range to the cultural values from which we have drawn our energy.

"It was a special privilege to see how personally moved you were by each scrap of vellum and every piece of paper. This added powerfully to the intensity of our experience.''

In the Unit's report for 1998-99, it was noted that 160 visitors had come to view some of the Collection and hear about its historical importance, most of them in pre-arranged groups. It was also reported that 454 responses had been made to enquiries and requests, and that £106,000 had been externally raised.

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More questions than answers

[The sad story of a widow and her children]
T-S. 16.100 - the sad story of a widow and her remaining children who fled from Narbonne in France to Egypt in 1096

Among the many remarkable and personal documents found in the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection is one published by Norman Golb in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, volume 113, pages 67-74 (T-S 16.100).

An adaptation of Golb's translation, as cited by Brian Allison in his new short play, Sibylla, reads: "Honourable nobles of our race in Egypt! From this letter, hear the plight of the widow of David, of the high family of Todros in Narbonne. He lived among us for six years. Sibylla is of a great Norman family, converted to our faith.

"She cannot safely remain among us for fear of her father's wrath. David was killed in the synagogue here in Monieux in this year, 1096 of their reckoning. The two children, Jacob and Justa, have been stolen away.

"The widow is scarcely here alive, weeping and broken in spirit. There is no one left to care for her and her infant son. We have nothing left to give her. We reside among the dogs; a few of the many that once there were.

"We ask you to look upon this lady with a friendly countenance, and treat her as your own. Our scripture says: `Ye shall love the stranger, for strangers were ye in the land of Egypt'. The Lord in his mercy will double your reward and will surely lead you to a place of glory.''

Carrying not much more than this letter and her remaining child, the young widow apparently made her way from France to Fustat (medieval Cairo), to throw herself on the mercy of the Jewish community of that city.

Several questions remain unanswered.

How did a lady from a wealthy and noble Norman family come to convert to Judaism and marry a Jew from Narbonne? What events led to her arrival in Fustat, friendless and destitute? Was it the Crusaders who killed her husband and stole her children? Or was her powerful Norman father involved in some way?

These questions, and many more, cannot at present be answered with any certainty, but the tantalizing facts revealed in this poignant Genizah text provide Brian Allison with the backbone for his play - a tale of religious faith, love, vengeance and bigotry, leading finally to murder and despair.

The author, as a Christian, expresses his frustration that the hope and belief of the young Norman noblewoman - that Christians, Jews and Moslems would live together in harmony at the beginning of the present millennium - will be no nearer to being realized at the beginning of the next.

Interestingly, the tale is still being discussed by historians, most recently by Edna Engel and Joseph Yahalom in Sefunot 7 (1999), pages 13-31. There it is suggested that the town was not Monieux in Provence but M&uumlaut;no in the north of Spain, near Burgos. Sibylla, published in paperback in 1998 by Minerva Press, is a valuable teaching resource, suitable for amateur or school dramatic societies striving to encourage ethnic understanding and harmony.

Publications sub-editor, Genizah Research Unit

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Valuable year at Cambridge

[Nicola Heys]
Nicola Heys deciphering Judaeo-Arabic fragments

It is impossible to study Hebrew at Cambridge and not to hear of the importance of the Genizah Collection and the range of material to be found there. As a result, I became interested in the Collection at an early undergraduate stage and, after my BA, decided to proceed to a master's degree in Post-Biblical and Medieval Hebrew.

The M.Phil. included examinations based on various Genizah texts. In addition, I wrote a dissertation on "The Book of the Wars of the Lord'', a polemical poem by Salmon Ben Yeruham, a tenth-century Karaite, written in response to the works of Sa`adya Gaon and showing the ferocity of the Karaite/Rabbanite debate at the time.

I was then awarded an Israeli government scholarship to spend a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, studying Arabic. This enabled me to take up the post of Research Assistant in the Unit on my return to Cambridge in October, 1998.

During the past year, my colleague, Dr Friedrich Niessen, and I have continued the work begun by Dr Avihai Shivtiel, compiling entries for a complete catalogue of the Judaeo-Arabic and Arabic material in the Collection.

As the range of Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts is so vast, I have been able to work on a variety of texts, including biblical translations, liturgical texts and poetry, as well as private and commercial correspondence.

Of particular interest, however, were the grammatical and philological texts, including works by such noted Hebrew grammarians as Jonah Ibn Janah and David ben Abraham Alfasi, which attest to the development of early grammatical thought.

In addition to cataloguing work, I have enjoyed participating in the various exhibitions, lectures and presentations regularly organized by the Unit for visitors. This task of introducing people to the Genizah and familiarizing them with its contents is immensely rewarding.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my year at the Unit, and am glad to have had the opportunity of being part of such an enthusiastic, well-motivated team and of making a contribution, however small, to the ongoing progress of its exciting work.

Research Assistant

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Poverty and charity in medieval Egypt

[Professor Mark R. Cohen]
Professor Mark R. Cohen, of Princeton, preparing his latest study on the Genizah fragments

The Cairo Genizah contains a large number of documents relevant to the history of poverty and charity in the Jewish community of the medieval Mediterranean, particularly Egypt.

I am preparing two books on this subject: one, a historical study, and the other, a collection of letters and other documents in English translation.

During the summers of 1997 and 1998, I spent a total of three months at Cambridge University Library amassing material from the Taylor-Schechter Collection, transcribing documents from scratch, and proof-reading texts I had previously transcribed from microfilm or photocopy.

I have also made use of the S. D. Goitein Laboratory for Genizah Research, which consists of the late Professor Goitein's personal photocopies of documents, his thousands of index cards, and scores of other note files.

The Laboratory is located at the Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem, and a duplicate is housed in my own department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

By the end of the summer of 1998, I had identified some 410 letters, 312 lists and accounts, 30 legal documents, 12 wills, and 10 literary texts, including prayers for benefactors; and two poems about charity, one of which, a liturgical poem (piyyut), was earlier published by M. Zulay.

Seventy-five per cent of the total number of the documents in my corpus belong to the Taylor-Schechter Collection.

A large number of the letters and lists is discussed in Goitein's Mediterranean Society, especially in volumes 2 and 5. Others are noted on his index cards, which form the only relatively complete guide to the contents of the historical documents in the Genizah. A number of others I discovered independently.

The material is rich and unparalleled. Nothing like it exists for any other Jewish community in pre- modern times or, for that matter, for medieval Christian society or for the world of medieval Islam. Uniquely, the Genizah contains letters from the poor themselves, and on behalf of the poor.

Historians of poverty in medieval Christendom lament the absence of sources from the needy themselves, "the voice of the poor''. The indigent of the Christian Middle Ages were illiterate, which is one reason for the dearth of sources emanating from their ranks.

Even if the poor of Christendom had been able to write, it is difficult to imagine how their written word could have been preserved for the eyes of the modern historian.

The same holds true for letters written on their behalf. The available sources, whether from monasteries or from parish records, reflect the viewpoint of the literate classes looking down, as it were, and recording their own indirect and often skewed impressions of what they saw or heard.

The Genizah contains the remains of a community that was literate (the males, at any rate, but also many women). Moreover, the fragments were "buried'' in a place - Egypt - which is arid and thus still have a high degree of legibility. In this instance, the Genizah again proves to be one of the most valuable sources for medieval civilization.

In addition to many letters of appeal from the needy, the Genizah contains hundreds of lists of beneficiaries and of contributors. These documents appear rather dull at first glance, and hardly any of them have yet been published.

For that reason, and also because they are often badly worn or damaged, they are difficult to decipher. If, however, one approaches them with broad questions about how the community dealt with its poor, the material comes alive. I hope to demonstrate this in future publications.

Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University

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Jewish community under the dominion of caliphs

Magnes Press, of Jerusalem, has published, in Hebrew, Menahem Ben-Sasson's The Emergence of the Local Jewish Community in the Muslim World: Qayrawan 800-1057, originally a 1983 doctoral thesis at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Ben-Sasson focuses on the city of Qayrawan (Kairouan) during the 9th-11th centuries to explore the relations of the diaspora communities with Eretz Israel and Babylonia.

During this period, Qayrawan was the leading city in North Africa, flourishing both commercially and intellectually under its Aghlabid rulers, although still under the dominion of the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad.

The Genizah documents reflect this prosperity and found their way to Fustat, after Qayrawan's destruction in 1057 by the Fatimid rulers of Egypt in response to local Berber insurrection. Never again did the city regain its position and standing in North Africa.

Drawing on a remarkably wide range of Genizah documents, which reflect Qayrawan's rich intellectual milieu, Ben-Sasson explores both the internal and international dimensions of the Jewish community.

In keeping with Mediterranean society, where the roles of officialdom and the family are frequently intertwined, the first of the three main chapters in the book chronicles how great families maintained their importance and prestige, both politically and commercially. The picture that emerges is of a cohesive rabbinic Jewish community and its response to the challenge of immigrant groups.

The largest portion of Ben-Sasson's seminal volume is devoted to the official institutions of Qayrawan. He investigates the synagogue, as well as the bet midrash (academy), bet din (rabbinic law court), and negidut (communal leadership).

Due to the learning for which the Jewish community was renowned, not only did the authority of the bet midrash extend throughout the Maghreb, but its exceptional standing was acknowledged even by the Babylonian Geonim.

Similarly, the leadership and judicial duties of the bet din received the highest recognition, locally, regionally and internationally. The Nagid, Abraham ben Nathan (ibn `Ata), was called by Rav Hai Gaon, of Babylonia, the "Nagid of the Diaspora''.

Ben-Sasson concludes his discussion with a chapter placing the community in its international setting. He demonstrates the independence of the local leadership in decision-making, despite its strong ties with Babylon.

As he reminds us, this situation epitomized the values and norms of medieval society, be it Christian, Moslem or Jewish, where the supreme authority remained unchallenged.

Ben-Sasson makes over 2,000 references to more than 400 Genizah manuscripts. The exceptional contribution of this material is acknowledged in the sizeable appendix, wherein all the manuscripts are listed under chronological sub-divisions.

Each entry is annotated and accompanied by references to previous citations, providing a wealth of information and complementing the comprehensive bibliography.

Ben-Sasson's exhaustive scholarship illuminates the unique importance of the Jewish community at Qayrawan, adding a new dimension to the history of the Jews of North Africa in the Middle Ages.

Interest in the first edition of the book was such that it became necessary to publish a second edition within a short time. Happily, the inaccuracies in the indexes of the first edition have, with the Unit's assistance, now been corrected.

Research Associate, Genizah Research Unit

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Aid for T-S projects

Major funding for 1999-2000 has been negotiated with the Friedberg Genizah Project (see page 1), and contacts have recently been made that pledge special support for a number of the Unit's projected initiatives in the fields of exhibition, research and conservation. Details of the projects will be published in these columns as they are finalized.

During the summer period, anonymous donations have been made by foundations in Liechtenstein, Canada and the United Kingdom, amounting to over £6,000.

There were welcome renewals of support from the George Balint Charitable Trust (£500); the Sidney and Elizabeth Corob Charitable Trust (£300); Mrs Marjorie Glick (£300); the Harbour Trust (£350, through Barbara and Stanley Green); and the H. Joels Charitable Trust (£500).

Generous assistance was also provided by Ruth and Conrad Morris (£250); the Helene Sebba Charitable Trust (£250); and Sir Sigmund Sternberg (£250).

Others to whom the Unit is grateful include Elizabeth and Philip Beckman (£100 from the Benjamin Leighton Charitable Trust); Mr Elliot Philipp (£100); Mr David Pinto (£100); Mr Michael Rose (£100); Mr Stephen Rosenberg (£100); Mrs Judith Samuel (£100); and Mrs Miriam Shenkin (£100).

Smaller donations amounted to over £4,000, and these, too, are much appreciated.

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How you can help

If you would like to receive Genizah Fragments regularly, to enquire about the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection, or to know how you may assist with its preservation and study, please write to:

Professor S. C. Reif
Director of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit
Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DR

The library may also be reached by fax (01223) 333160, or by telephone (01223) 333000. The Internet access is at http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/Taylor-Schechter/. Enquiries by e-mail should be addressed to genizah@lib.cam.ac.uk.

Readers not already supporting the Unit are asked to help ensure the continuity of this publication by making a small, regular gift. The sum of £5 (UK) or $10 (abroad) is suggested; payment may be made to Cambridge or to the American Friends.

All contributions to the Unit, whether for the research programme or for its other activities, are made to the "University of Cambridge'', which enjoys charitable status for tax and similar purposes.

In the USA and Canada, all contributions may be directed to:

The President of the American Friends of Cambridge University
Mr Stephen C. Price
PO Box 9123
New York
NY 10087-9123
Transfers of such funds are regularly made to Cambridge from the USA.

The AFCU is recognized by the IRS as a charitable organization, and contributions are legally deductible for United States income tax purposes. They are similarly deductible in Canada even if made directly to Cambridge.

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Edited by Stefan C. Reif
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